Best Practices for Teaching at an Alternative High School

Best Practices for Teaching at an Alternative High School

The responsibilities of high school teachers are similar no matter at which school they teach. In fact, the job description for a teaching position at an alternative high school would likely read the same as any other. For new or experienced teachers who decide to work at an alternative high school, success requires a unique set of best practices, something I learned through four years of teaching at one.



In this article, we’ll examine the challenges teachers who work at these schools face before diving into the best practices these teachers use to help their students succeed. 


What Are Alternative High Schools?

Regretfully, when most people hear the phrase ‘alternative high school,’ they conjure the image of a run-down school where the students all have troubled pasts: drug addiction, criminal records, etc. Yes, young men and women who make poor decisions often attend alternative high schools as a means for them to graduate.

However, just as many students attend alternative high schools for other reasons: social anxiety disorders, bullying at their previous schools, or the need for individualized attention in a smaller classroom setting. The list goes on.

Along with smaller classrooms, alternative high schools regularly provide their students with extra services such as counseling. Also, in a public alternative high school, it is not uncommon that a significant percentage of the student body has an IEP or 504.  


What Are the Challenges?


The critical challenge of working at an alternative high school involves discipline. Due to these schools' small size and the large percentage of at-risk students, it is easy for one student's negative decision to affect other. For example, if a student with a history of drug abuse relapses such as using drug just before or after school, their proximity to other students recovering from drug addition puts those students at risk for a relapse, as well. On more than one occasion I witnessed this very thing: one student provided drugs to a small group before school. All students were expelled due to the school's zero-tolerance policy.

Many Ability Levels in One Classroom 

Most alternative high schools do not offer honors or AP courses. As a result, students of various ability level are enrolled in the same, standard-level class. As a teacher, you’re challenged to provide differentiated instruction to different levels within your classroom. 

My old principal use to say that "How can you assign homework if students' homes don't work?" He meant that it was impossible to expect students to complete homework when their homes were adverse learning environments. This fact presents a secondary challenge to teachers who are accustomed to giving homework. 


How You Can Help Your Students Succeed

Offer Them a New Way to Learn

In short, make your curriculum genuinely alternative. In my class, I had great success using TCI's History Alive curriculum, which I modified only slightly to meet my state’s history standards.

But what if you don't teach history or your school cannot afford specialized materials? If that's the case, here are some techniques you can use no matter the subject you teach:

  • Involve all learning styles. Combine auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles into classroom activities that help students master content. For example, in an English classroom, students practice and master different poetry techniques while creating and performing their slam poetry.
  • Constantly give formative feedback. Offering students a genuine alternative to learning, it is likely that students will not know right away if they are performing well. That's why its imperative that you begin giving formative feedback as soon as possible.
  • Every student’s definition of ‘proficient’ is unique. With so many ability levels within your class, you must create a grading system that praises growth rather than just test scores. In my school, we achieved this through using proficiency levels rather than grades. Low-achieving students were encouraged to move from ‘not proficient’ to ‘approaching proficient,’ while high achieving students were encouraged to move from ‘proficient’ to ‘advanced.’ What constituted the requirements for growth was different in every subject and grade level.
  • Apply scaffolding techniques that Involve your entire class. Do you have a large number of students with reading difficulties or another disability? If so, try applying scaffolding techniques for all students. Some examples include:
    • Guided notes
    • Recorded lectures that you post online with classroom materials
      • This also has the added benefit of catching up students who have missed school. 

When it Comes to Discipline, Be Consistent

This is great advice no matter your school. Considering the issues I mentioned in the previous section, all teachers at an alternative high school must present a unified stance on discipline. When starting work, immediately conference with other teachers to learn their classroom rules/regulations so that you can mirror those in your classroom.

Final Thoughts 

Alternative high schools present a unique challenge. However, none of their obstacles are insurmountable. Before you start working at one of these schools, I encourage you to continue researching teaching best practices. Also, realize that at first, not all your efforts will be successful. Like when starting work at any school, you will need time to adapt your strategies to your students’ needs.


Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and consultant in the education field. He lives in Northern California. You can learn more about Thomas on his website.

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